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Disaster Imperialism, Starring the Starving of the Earth: The End of Poverty?

The End of Poverty? is a kind of bookend to Capitalism: A Love Story: if Michael Moore’s movie examines how private enterprise operates at home, writer/director Philippe Diaz ‘s documentary explores what happens when that economic system is exported to the Third World.  As scathing exposes of exploitation these nonfiction films share much — ironic titles, onscreen social critics, and, most importantly, the down and out are ready for their close-ups.  At an L.A. screening of Capitalism Moore told me he liked Poverty? and “showed it at my theatre in Traverse City, Michigan.”

With Poverty?’s Kenya and Tanzania location shooting, Diaz’s doc — which has played on the film festival circuit from Cannes to Nairobi to Sao Paulo to Calcutta — was a natural for L.A.’s Pan African Film Festival.  PAFF’s Executive Director, ex-Black Panther Ayuko Babu, was so enthusiastic about Poverty? he watched it twice; last February the 104-minute film won an Honorable Mention in that PAFF’s Best Documentary category.  Activist/actor James Cromwell, the farmer in 1995’s talking pig comedy Babe, says, “This film should be discussed and seen by as many people as possible.”  General audiences can do so starting November with Poverty?’s theatrical release.

Poverty?‘s activists, academics, authors, and experts include ex-CIA analyst Chalmers Johnson, former World Bank chief economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, and John Perkins, who wrote Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.  The interviewees and filmmakers assert:

Every 3.6 seconds someone starves to death.  16,000 children die daily due to hunger.  800 million-plus people go to bed hungry, including 300 million children.  2.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day; more than 1 billion survive on less than $1 per day; 162 million people subsist on less than 50 cents daily.  The developing world spends $13 in debt service for every $1 it received in grants.  The world’s richest 1% owns 32% of its wealth.  In Latin America, the richest 1% receives over 400 times as much income as the poorest 1%.  The greater the disparity wealth, the more violent societies are.  There are 60 million-plus slaves around the world today.

How did this massive injustice and inequality come about?  The End of Poverty? goes to globalization’s beginnings, to 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean — not blue, but red, with blood spilled by empire.  As the film documents, “It’s what the wealth of Europe, for the most part, was based on, when you consider not only the exploitation of the ‘New World’ . . . but also what happened in Africa,” says Oscar- and Emmy-nominated Cromwell.  “The Europe the explorers left was basically economically, physically, and spiritually bankrupt. . . .  It was the exploitation of all the Third World’s resources that allowed Europe to exist at all. . . .  America . . . was built at the expense of indigenous people, and . . . to a great extent, by slave labor imported from Africa or China,” notes Cromwell, whoplayed presidents in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, LBJ in 2002’s RFK and Bush Senior in Oliver Stone’s 2008 W, plus Prince Philip in 2006’s The Queen and Pope Pius XII in an upcoming mini-series.

Diaz explains the doc’s name adds a question mark to the title of ex-Harvard professor Jeffrey Sachs’ book because “we’re attacking the economists and politicians who say these stupid things about poverty. . . .  Sachs is considered ‘Mr. Poverty’ in the U.S., he’s running all around the world with Bono, to promote his solution to poverty, which are, very simply, mosquito nets and fertilizer. . . .  They help . . . but don’t solve anything.  By promoting these ideas, you just prevent people from understanding poverty’s true cause.”

In stark contrast The End of Poverty? exposes the structural causes of mass misery, tracing their 500-year-old imperial origins.  Diaz points out before the conquistadors “there was no massive starvation as we see it today,” after traditional land-based “natural economies” were replaced by “consumer societies,” turning what was commonly owned into commodities.  The roots of contemporary wretchedness are vast land confiscations, resource misappropriations, extraction and export of raw materials — all benefiting foreign elites and local lackeys.  This topsy-turvy system makes “Germany the biggest export of coffee; Germany doesn’t have one single bush of coffee,” Diaz observes.

To enforce their rule and these inequities, Johnson and economic hit man Perkins contend the metropoles use bribery, indebtedness, and in the case of nationalists — such as Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, Guatemalan agrarian reformer President Arbenz , and Chile’s socialist President Allende — deploy CIA “jackals” or military intervention.

Diaz and other Sachs detractors, including Naomi Klein, also contend Sachs’ neo-liberal “shock therapy” privatization programs for harming workers in Bolivia, Russia, Poland.  “This man should be in jail, he’s very dangerous,” Diaz declares.  If Klein reveals the rise of “Disaster Capitalism” in The Shock Doctrine, Diaz documents the 500-year rise of “Disaster Imperialism.”

Why should downsized, outsourced Western workers care about Third World penury?  Given declining U.S. living standards, unemployment, evictions, and Moore’s contention in Capitalism that 1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 95%, Diaz says, “We could have made the same movie about America and the northern countries. . . .  Everywhere, it’s the same thing.  The poor pay for the system.  They pay to put more and more money every year into the pockets of the elite and corporations.  But the problem is much more deep, burning and dramatic in the south because . . . they can’t survive, they’ll die.”  Diaz thinks the difference in northern and southern suffering is in degree, not kind.  Capitalism discloses corporations profiteering from employees’ deaths, but Poverty? literally deals with “dead peasants.”

Diaz says Martin Sheen narrated Poverty? for donations to causes, such as Catholic Worker.  Cromwell notes: “Our celebrity allows us to be heard, which, if you use that appropriately . . . to express opinions people might not necessarily hear in the corporate media that tends to stifle any expression of opposition or analysis. . . .  Martin Sheen is an extraordinary activist, deeply committed . . . he’s always been involved . . . in issues of war and peace, individual rights, the rights of oppressed, environmental . . . social. . . .  I heartily, heartily applaud and support him.  He’s done an extraordinary job.”

Cromwell believes the post-9/11 surge in documentaries “is always healthy; the illness of our country is the concentration of power into the hands of fewer and fewer people who control more and more of our means of expression. . . .  The amount of information that can be conveyed is extraordinary, and it informs people about the world they live in and empowers them. . . . one reason why I believe they’re suppressed.  Luckily, Michael Moore and a number of others have become popular enough that they can’t be suppressed.”

Although Philippe Diaz grew up in Paris, his grandfather migrated to France from Spain after Franco seized power.  Diaz studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne; he began professionally making films at 19.  He produced an early AIDs-themed feature, 1986’s Mauvais Sang, which helped launch Juliette Binoche and Julie Delpy’s careers, and 1988’s Calcutta-shot La Nuit Bengali, starring Hugh Grant.  Diaz relocated to L.A. in the 1990s, co-founding Cinema Libre, a distribution (theatrical and DVD) and production company of progressive, independent documentary, feature, and foreign films.  Cinema Libre’s motto is: “Opening eyes and minds one film at a time”; its animated logo depicts an eye opening and shattering prison bars.

Cinema Libre titles include the award-winning, Diaz-directed, Sierra Leone-shot The Empire in Africa, Giuliani Time, McLibel, Deflating the Elephant with Sean Penn, Tim Robbins’ Embedded, Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The War on Iraq and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, plus Jean-Jacques Beineix, Jean Gabin, and Brigitte Bardot pictures.  Cinema Libre’s Speaking Freelyseries, derived from footage shot while making Poverty?, features progressives such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  Located in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, Cinema Libre “is a mini-mini-studio where everything is under one roof . . . shooting equipment, the entire post-production chain, we do everything in-house: editing, special effects, sound, we even transfer digital to 35mm,” explains Diaz.

Throughout Poverty?,which was largely funded by the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, are haunting, lingering shots of children, whom Diaz calls “the innocent victims of the system,” the meek inheriting not the Earth, but disaster imperialism’s consequences.  While the doc’s commentators have insightful analyses, it’s the dispossessed themselves who speak most eloquently.  During the three year-plus shoot in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Diaz discovered “most poor people I met had a very clear understanding why they were in this situation and of the political and economic situation around the world.”  Brazilian sugarcane cutters movingly describe the 21st century slavery of landless peasants.  Grace, a Kenyan tea plucker, sums up the poverty-stricken’s plight: “Our stomachs are small.”

The End of Poverty? proposes solutions far more radical and sweeping than nets and fertilizers: agrarian reform, redistribution of wealth, sharing of resources.  In Capitalism, Michael Moore calls this new system “democracy”; others, like Chavez, call it “21st century socialism.”

Diaz’s next film is a sort of sequel — a drama called The Last Days of Karl Marx.  The End of Poverty? opens in N.Y. on Nov. 13, Nov. 25 in L.A.,  followed by a platform national release.  For more information, see:  

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based author, freelancer and film critic/historian who wrote Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.

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